The appointment of Talawa as resident company at the soon-to-reopen Fairfield Halls in Croydon marks the end of a long journey for one of Britain’s foremost black theatre companies. Having left the Cochrane Theatre in 1995, Talawa had been due to launch London’s first “black-run, black-led theatre” in the space now occupied by the Other Palace, then known as the Westminster Theatre.
The landmark project had been in development since 2001, but was scuppered in 2005 when Arts Council England withdrew the £4 million it had committed to the scheme, citing “organisational weakness” at Talawa. The project collapsed and, in the end, the venue was taken over by a commercial operator, before being sold on to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Understandably, the response to the removal of such significant sums from a flagship black theatre project was vitriolic. Talawa launched legal proceedings and I remember reporting on an open meeting at the Africa Centre where the anger was palpable – at one point, it very nearly came to blows.
Next, a report into the state of what was then termed the “black and minority ethnic sector” was commissioned by the Arts Council and undertaken by Baroness Lola Young in 2006, with £5 million earmarked to establish a series of spaces across the UK to help develop culturally diverse work.
The irony that the first of these ‘spaces’ turned out to be a website – a virtual space – was not lost on those who had campaigned for a physical home for black theatre for decades. Since then, it has taken a further decade for Talawa to find a permanent venue.
It is wonderful that this has happened and it seems appropriate to celebrate the news in the same week as the announcement of the Black Theatre Awards. But it should prompt questions of why false dawns and extensive delays have been such a regular thorn in the side of black theatre in Britain. Is it any wonder that the Arts Council’s recent announcement that the sector is “treading water” on diversity has been met with frustration: not only because people recognise the statement to have been true for a long time, but also because ACE has played its own part in some of the delays.
We might also ask what has happened to the three-month season of plays centred on black, Asian and minority ethnic talent that was announced with much fanfare in 2016 and was due to take place in 2018? In early 2018, it was delayed to 2019. We’re now into 2019, and there are still no further details.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith